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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Review: Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach

 I checked out Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach from the library on a lark, started watching the first episode and was immediately hooked. The series is a bunch of civil engineering case studies, with a view to understanding the various phases of engineering a structure and looking at where each phase can fail, with dire consequences.

What is so great about this video series is that Professor Stephen Ressler builds small, simplified models of the structures he's talking about and then directly demonstrates the failure modes. This makes everything visual and impactful, resulting in a directly intuitive approach to understanding the mechanism of failure without having to do math or go into esoteric analysis.

This would be wasted if the disasters he chose to cover were not meaningful or interesting, but he's picked excellent case studies. Even better, in some of these cases, such as the Tacoma Narrows bridge, everything you learned in school about it was probably wrong, and he carefully debunks the incorrect explanation and shows you what happened.

By far the most impressive disasters depicted in the series are the recent ones such as the Florida International University pedestrian bridge. That's because while you can tell yourself that in the old days we didn't have adequate tools, models or experience building these types of structures, there's no such excuse for more recent structures, and you learn that anything new you do (such as a new method of construction) comes with significant risks. The cost over-runs resulting in mistakes run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and there's frequently loss of life involved as well.

I love the section that get into management. For instance, the Challenger Disaster is frequently touted as an example where engineers disagree with management, and management just refused to listen. Professor Ressler points out that everyone in the chain of command was trained as an engineer as well! I enjoyed every lecture and now understand why cantilever bridges were common in the 1930s-1960s but were not as frequently used in recent years --- it turns out that they were easier to analyze with limited computational power, and with modern computer systems we're able to make more highly optimized structures because we have the compute power available.

I highly recommend this series. If you're an engineer, or work managing engineers, this series contains important material for you. Well worth the time!

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